The Episcopal Bishop of Long Island left Tuesday afternoon for the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, where he plans to help several thousand Central American migrants who arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, by caravan and hope to gain legal access to the United States.
“I think it is the American thing to do,” said the Right Rev. Lawrence Provenzano in an interview before he left. “I certainly know it is the Christian thing to do.”
Provenzo said he is leading a delegation of about two dozen volunteers from the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island who will travel to Tijuana throughout the week to help the migrants with physical, spiritual and legal needs.
The volunteers include doctors, social workers, clergy and others, along with the Rev. Marie Tatro, the diocese’s vicar for community justice ministry, he said.
Many of the migrants left Honduras and other Central American nations in mid-October, walking much of the way before arriving in Tijuana over the past couple of weeks. As many as 6,000 are now waiting in the Mexico border city as they try to apply for political asylum in the United States.
President Donald Trump has called the caravan an invasion that threatens U.S. national security. He has deployed 5,600 soldiers at various points along the border and changed asylum rules to try to prevent the migrants’ entry. Trump said he may send as many as 15,000 troops.
Provenzano said the migrants are fleeing violence by drug cartels and gangs, along with Great Depression-level poverty. He said instead of sending troops, Trump should send social workers and judges to the border to adjudicate the migrants’ cases for asylum.
Some of the migrants, losing hope of gaining asylum, have rushed the border wall or tried to scale it in recent days. On Nov. 25, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents shut down the border crossing for several hours in both directions and fired tear gas to force migrants back from the border fence.
Provenzano said he and other volunteers will assist the migrants only in pursuing legal means of entering the United States.
He proposed setting up a kind of Ellis Island operation at the border to weed out criminals and others with “nefarious” intentions and to allow in hardworking migrants looking for a better life the way the United States did for generations.
Provenzano noted that his grandparents emigrated from Italy through Ellis Island.
“They came for all the reasons people are coming today,” the bishop said. “Why are we treating these people like criminals?”
Provenzano said he plans to assist colleagues from the Episcopal Church in Mexico who have been tending to the migrants. Many of the migrants are housed in a sports complex where food is scarce and conditions unsanitary — especially after a big rainstorm turned it into a swamp a few days ago, Provenzano said.
The Episcopal Church is also running smaller shelters for migrants where Provenzano said he and others may help.
“It has become full-time work,” Provenzano said.
His Mexican colleagues need help assisting the migrants, many of whom “have been traumatized by the experience” of the trip and violence back home, the bishop said.
He is advising those traveling with the delegation to pack as much clothing as possible and be prepared to leave it for the migrants.
“I’ll probably come back with almost nothing,” Provenzano said.
The bishop said he has received some “some significant hate mail” for his decision to head to the border.
“I know there are some critics” who contend “the church should just mind its business and leave it to the government” to resolve the issue, he said.
But Provenzano said there is a biblical mandate to assist “the stranger in a strange land,” and noted that — in this time of Advent — Mary and Joseph had no place at the inn when they arrived in Bethlehem.
The bishop said the effort is likely just the start of his work at the border.
“This may wind up being the first of several trips,” he said. “We are in this for the long haul.”